For the Arab Gulf kingdoms, the Horn of Africa is a strategic perimeter. They want to minimize political threats — some are hostile to Islamists, all want to suppress democracy movements. Anticipating a post-carbon and food insecure world, the Gulf States want to possess rich farmlands. Each has its own vision of African client states that will do their bidding.
This is a recipe for proxy wars, state fragmentation and autocracy in northeast Africa.
For the Horn of Africa, today’s crises are existential. War, dictatorship and famine are causing state collapse. The African Union is compromised, its peace and security system unravelling. The United Nations is retreating from peacemaking, increasingly reduced to a bare-bones humanitarian provider.
The dangers were illuminated by the surprise New Year’s Day deal between Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, and Muse Bihi, president of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, a breakaway region of northwest Somalia. Ethiopia has been renowned for careful diplomacy, including championing the inviolability of existing boundaries. After fighting wars with Somalia in the 1960s and ‘70s, Ethiopia had learned to be circumspect and consultative in its dealings with Mogadishu.
Last week, Ethiopia upended that tradition. It promised to recognize Somaliland as an independent sovereign state, in return for Somaliland leasing it a 12-mile stretch of land, including a seaport, that will allow Ethiopia to establish a naval base. This in turn unleashed strong words from Somalia — which had not been informed ahead of time. The AU called for Ethiopia to treat Somalia with respect. Fears of new conflicts were stirred. Unsaid in public is that the UAE is widely suspected to be the patron of the deal.
For the United States, crises in the Horn of Africa are a sidebar to the ongoing Israel-Gaza war and the confrontation with Iran. Gunboat diplomacy in the Red Sea — the warships deployed under Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect shipping from attacks from the Houthis in Yemen — is the priority.
There’s a global consensus on keeping the shipping lanes open. If the Red Sea shuts down — as happened following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war— the knock-on effects on trade between Europe and Asia would be economically severe. The EU-run Operation Atalanta runs an anti-piracy flotilla involving warships from 13 European nations, (including the UK, which provided the flagship until Brexit), working with ships from Ukraine, India, Korea and Colombia.
After a few years the flotilla commanders concluded that the solution to piracy lay onshore, in the form of diplomacy to resolve Somalia’s conflicts and economic assistance to provide livelihoods to impoverished fishermen. That was a step in the right direction.
Saudi Arabia chairs a Red Sea Forum that includes eight littoral states (all except Israel), to tackle piracy, smuggling and marine resources — not political issues.
Six years ago, Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa who chairs the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for the Horn of Africa, introduced the term “Red Sea Arena.” The idea was to create a diplomatic forum that would include not just the littoral states, but all the other countries with vital interests in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden or with political and commercial links across the narrow strip of water.
The former AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Ramtane Lamamra explained: “The Red Sea has historically been a bridge rather than a divide, with the peoples on the two shores sharing culture, trade, and social relations.” Egypt has millennia-old interests in the Nile Valley and both shores of the Red Sea. Ethiopia has a vital interest in access to the sea. The UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Turkey all have historic or current interests.
Regional and global power struggles are played out in the Red Sea Arena. Seven nations including the U.S., China, Turkey and the UAE have naval bases there. Others, including Iran and Russia, have warships in the vicinity and are actively seeking bases. The port of Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba is Israel’s strategic back door, as the Houthi attacks on shipping have dramatically shown.
The plan for a standing conference of Red Sea Arena states built on proposals contained in the World Peace Foundation report to the AU, “African Politics, African Peace” — for which Mbeki and veteran UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi co-authored the preface. The idea was that Middle Eastern states should sign on to the principles of the AU’s peace and security architecture and establish joint mechanisms for cooperation.
The AU failed to act on these proposals. Nor were they raised at the UN Security Council.
Instead, Arabian Gulf states are increasingly assertive in the Horn, and they’re bringing an aggressive form of transactional politics, including funding proxies to fight wars. The U.S. — whose security umbrella sheltered the Red Sea for decades — seems uninterested.
Saudi Arabia has long seen the African shore of the Red Sea as part of its security perimeter. Qatar and Turkey sought influence in Sudan and Somalia, especially among the Islamists. Israel has discreetly sought a determining role in the region.
But the key actor is the UAE. A small, rich state, it uses proxies to project power, and supports separatists in disregard of international norms. Abu Dhabi’s clients include key players in Libya and Chad, and it is positioning itself as kingmaker in the Horn. The UAE supports and arms Ethiopia. It already controls many ports in the region — including, it is suspected, the proposed Ethiopian port and naval base in the land leased from Somaliland. But Abu Dhabi has yet to clarify its strategic goals for the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.
The last decade has been a rollercoaster of hope and horror for the peoples of the Red Sea Arena. Popular uprisings in Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan all descended into lethal brews of autocracy, war, atrocity, and famine, with local conflicts escalating into proxy wars. Guided by the short-term imperative of staying in power — and by the ambitions of cash-rich foreign sponsors — today’s leaders are too often short-sighted and transactional.
Under UN and AU guidance, a raft of peace agreements was crafted to serve as the threshold for democracy. Today a peace pact, such as the threadbare “Permanent Cessation of Hostilities” that ended Ethiopia’s war in Tigray, may be no more than a truce. The principle of the primacy of politics — that served Africa’s peace agenda well — has come to mean short-term transactionalism rather than a commitment to democracy, good governance, and inclusivity.
Today’s regression means that Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki is being rehabilitated. For 30 years, Isaias has ruled an iron fist, with no constitution let alone political parties or an open media, hoping that the tide of global liberalism would recede. He looks to be proven correct.
Sudanese General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as “Hemedti,” commander of the Rapid Support Forces, the insurgent paramilitaries notorious for their human rights abuses, is touring Africa in a Royal Jet airplane (an Emirati airline). He arrived in Addis Ababa last week where he met Prime Minister Abiy. Extending protocol to Emirati-backed disrupters is the new normal in the region.
To the extent that it functions at all, the AU is becoming the face of illiberal multilateralism, veering away from its founding principles. The UN’s practice of deferring to its regional partners leaves it eviscerated. The InterGovernmental Authority on Development — the eight-member northeast African bloc — is now deeply divided and approaching paralysis.
With the Horn of Africa and Yemen slipping far down the priority list in Western foreign ministries, America and Europe are sending mid-ranking diplomats into the snake pit, woefully under-armed for the perils they encounter. Too easily intimidated by swaggering local despots, perhaps swayed by zombie “Pan Africanist” slogans that challenge their right to talk about human rights, they have left their countries irrelevant in the face of ruthless Gulf power-broking.
Recent developments could not have been anticipated in detail. But American diplomats saw the broader challenge some years ago. In 2020, a bipartisan “senior study group” on the Red Sea convened by the United States Institute of Peace, prioritized a broad diplomatic strategy for the Red Sea Arena. The USIP report warned that conflicts in the region could threaten U.S. national security and proposed a high-level envoy with a broad mandate.
The Biden administration quickly appointed a special envoy for the Horn of Africa, but the Africa Bureau at the State Department soon downgraded the position. The cost of this strategic neglect is becoming clear today.
There’s still a chance for a diplomatic forum that promotes collective security. Washington has lost its best opportunities to take a lead — any U.S. initiative today will arouse deep suspicions among others. Middle Eastern powers don’t, as a rule, propose collective action, and the Gulf states are divided. The Europeans will follow, not lead.
The onus of leadership then falls on Africa and on the United Nations. Acting together, they can create a consensus that brings on board America, Europe, China, and Russia in a forum framed by the agenda of a stable and cooperative Red Sea Arena.
Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation, Research Professor at the Fletcher School of Global Affairs, Tufts University, and Professorial Fellow at the London School of Economics. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: 200 years of the war on disease and its alternatives (Polity 2021).
Mulugeta Gebrehiwot is a senior fellow at the World Peace Foundation (WPF), Tufts University. He is the founding director of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) of Addis Ababa University. As an expert in Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution he has consulted with different international organizations including the AU and UN. He has also served as a senior mediation advisor for the mediation support unit at UNDPPA.
Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS//File Photo
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.